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To reverse its brain drain, China should be more flexible on dual citizenship

August 11, 2022 GMT

Citizenship has become a sensitive topic in China. Every so often, you’ll see lists in the Chinese media ” of film stars who hold foreign passports, or billionaires who made money in China but now hold foreign passports. On the Chinese internet, some of these individuals get labelled as unpatriotic, or worse.

One of netizens’ latest targets is Harvard physics professor Xi Yin, a China-born prodigy who has been quoted as saying he has no plans to return to his native country at present. A US citizen now, Yin is also married to an American woman.

China does not allow dual citizenship. The line of reasoning seems to be that the authorities don’t want to create a group of people who enjoy too much privilege, or potentially allow criminals to evade punishment. Critics say it is a way of ensuring citizens’ loyalty or maintaining a monoculture.

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But much of the rest of the world has moved on, with more countries embracing dual citizenship against the backdrop of globalisation. Back in the 1960s, only one-third of countries allowed dual citizenship. Today, 75 per cent do.

Perhaps China should follow suit. It would help reverse the brain drain from the country.

Around the time Deng Xiaoping launched the reform and opening up policy, students were sent abroad to study, in countries including the US, Canada and the UK. This trend did not always pay off. In 2007, China Daily reported that, between 1978 and 2006, 1.06 million Chinese went overseas for studies and more than 70 per cent chose not to return. At that time, China probably suffered the most severe brain drain in the world.

To tackle the problem, Beijing has increased investment in higher education, and research and development. It introduced programmes such as the Thousand Talents Plan to lure back leading Chinese talent. Under the plan “sea turtles”, or returnees from overseas ” in Chinese, the two terms are homonyms ” may receive a one-time bonus of 1 million yuan (US$148,400). However, the programme has reportedly delivered mixed results. Not nearly enough sea turtles swim home.

As China grew rich, it became common practice among affluent families to send children abroad for further education. Between 2015 and 2019, 80 per cent of these students did return. Yet, China is still losing first-rate talent. In recent years, a reported 80 per cent of Chinese PhD students in the US have been reluctant to return.

Many developing countries in the world lose talent to the US, but China probably suffers more, especially in the realm of hi-tech. Those bright Chinese minds working at the cutting edge of American technology might also be hampering China’s own tech ambitions.

Indeed, China’s hope of dominating artificial intelligence may be threatened by the brain drain. According to a study conducted by MacroPolo, a think tank run by the Paulson Institute, Chinese researchers accounted for a quarter of the authors whose papers were accepted by a prestigious AI conference in 2018.

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However, three-quarters of the Chinese authors were working outside China, and 85 per cent of those were working in the US, at tech giants such as Google or universities like UCLA.

Why aren’t they returning to their motherland? Various dynamics could be at work, including higher salaries, better research facilities and a more open environment in the West.

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In the past days, the Chinese internet has been awash with stories of Xi Yin. Born into an intellectual family in central China’s Hunan province, he was a child prodigy who gained admission into the University of Science and Technology of China at the age of 12. Five years later, he left for Harvard to pursue his PhD. He is now a full professor at Harvard, who researches quantum gravity in low dimensions.

Regarding his decision to continue working in the US, he has been quoted as saying that he likes the research environment at Harvard and that science knows no borders. That sounds reasonable.

However, amid the Sino-US competition for primacy, whoever can harness more talent is likely to come out on top. Thus, addressing the brain drain becomes more urgent than ever.

One of the most effective ways to ease the problem would be to allow dual citizenship, which could help attract top talent as well as foreign investment.

It would make it easier for talented people to travel between China and their adopted country. It would also help them maintain their connections to both countries ” connections that may lead to a deeper exchange of ideas, knowledge transfer, investment and even the return of these individuals.

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Talent-exporting countries such as the Philippines, Mexico and Brazil have all adopted a dual-citizenship system.

In the past decade or so, Chinese experts including Wang Huiyao, the founder of the Center for China and Globalization, an influential think tank in China, have proposed the idea.

Professor David Zweig, a China expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, agrees too. He told me, “China does give permanent ‘green cards’ to mainlanders who return with overseas citizenship, but it would be better if it gave them dual citizenship and more rights than they have now.”

The Chinese government has shown flexibility with American-born ski star Eileen Gu, who competed for China in the 2022 Winter Olympics. It needs to go further.

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Lijia Zhang is a rocket-factory worker turned social commentator, and the author of a novel, Lotus

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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